The Holocaust in North Africa

By Helen Bermudes and Kiera Eriksen-McAuliffe

Did you know about the Jewish population in North Africa? 


The history of the Jewish people in North Africa has been long and complicated. Understanding this history is important when studying World War II and the Holocaust. Though the European history of this period is widely known, less attention has been paid to the impact it had beyond the borders of the European continent to African countries where there was a European colonial presence at the time, such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia (France) and Libya (Italy).

The stories of the Jewish population in these countries before, during, and after the war reveal a more complete perspective of this period in history. 

Source: Yad Vashem

The History of the North African Jewish Population

The Jewish diaspora in North Africa precedes the Jewish presence in Europe. There is discussion of Jews living in North Africa in the Bible. Archeological evidence supports some of the chronology reported in ancient sources. Foreign regimes have exerted control over North Africa for much of its history, impacting Jewish communities in these areas legally, socially and politically in different ways. The following timeline will provide some basic events and periods in the chronology of the Jewish presence in North Africa (most dates are estimated). 

The Impact of World War II

The effects of World War II are well known and well documented- but not necessarily in North Africa. Scholars and survivors alike have recently begun focusing on this less widely acknowledged perspective. Although North Africa was not under the direct occupation of the German Nazi forces, the scope of the war stretched beyond the borders of the European continent because of French and Italian colonial rule in the North African regions. When France and Italy joined the war so did the countries they ruled in Africa: Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria.

The impact of the second World War in North Africa is subject to debate and controversy among scholars. There is no historical or academic consensus on the exact number of people affected or even the right way to discuss the topic. The new debate and perspective on a historical event comes with nuanced difficulties and controversies. Is it accurate to call it the North African holocaust? Is it accurate to make comparisons of the level of tragedy between countries? How do we incorporate this new perspective into our collective memory of World War II? Should we?

The historical community is still learning new things about the war and its affects every year. It is important to honor the stories of the North African Jewish community in order to preserve the memory of the victims and strengthen our understanding of history.

When the war began Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were under French rule, and as a result the anti-semitic laws of the Vichy regime were implemented in these countries with varying degrees of intensity. In all three countries the French government began to confiscate Jewish property and force Jewish communities into labor camps. Some of the harshest conditions were in Algeria: French Jews were stripped of their citizenship and there were quotas created to limit the number of Jews working as doctors, lawyers, nurses, and pharmacists and to control the number of Jewish students allowed in primary and secondary education.

Tunisia, on the other hand, did not implement the Vichy-Regime laws completely. Vice Admiral Jean-Pierre Esteva prevented completely enforcing them until the German and Italian troops invaded Tunisia. After 1942, 5,000 Jewish Tunisians were forced into labor camps and 20 Jewish activists were deported to extermination camps in Europe. In some areas Jewish people were required to wear a yellow identification badge.

During World War II Libya was under Italian control. Similarly to Tunisia, Libyan governor Marshal Italo Balbo was able to prevent anti-Jewish laws from being fully enforced in the beginning of the war. But after his death, the Italian government deported French Jews to Tunisia and British Jews to concentration camps in Italy. In 1942, 2,000 Jewish Libyans were sent to the concentration camp Giado in Libya.

Although the invasion of the Allied forces in 1943 reversed many of the discriminatory laws, the anti-semitism and tension that had been created between the European, Jewish, and Muslim populations throughout the region could not be easily diffused. Jews in Libya, in particular, struggled to find peace from discrimination even after the Allied forces’ “liberation” of the country. In 1945 there was a pogrom against the Jewish community by the Muslim community in which synagogues and homes were destroyed and over 100 Jewish Libyans were killed or injured.

Since the war and the discrimination and harassment that continued after it due to post-war tensions, the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and European decolonization in the region, thousands of Jewish people since migrated away from North Africa leaving a very small proportion of the pre-war population.


Read this reflection by Gaby Lozano about the role of technology in remembering the Holocaust:

Remembering the North African Holocaust in an Age of Technology

-By Gaby Lozano


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